Sunday, May 21, 2017

Saints Also Belong to Their Times

I am rereading St. Francis de Sales’s Treatise on the Love of God (which, by the way, I recommend to anyone who has or can muster a tolerance for flowery language).  The circumstances of my first reading are somewhat shrouded by the mists of time, but I think it must have been about the period when I started graduate school.

No, it hasn’t been that long; it just feels that way.

Graduate school certainly has had its effect, however; for the preface and first chapter, which I remember finding a bit dull, proved “quite the opposite, in fact.”  The more you know, the more you catch.  This time, two things struck me, both on a purely secular level, but both having perhaps spiritual morals (if I may so speak).

The first was the following passage:

Soon afterwards his Highness came over the mountains, and finding the bailiwicks of Chablais, Gaillard and Ternier, which are in the environs of Geneva, well disposed to receive the Catholic faith which had been banished thence by force of wars and revolts about seventy years before, he resolved to re-establish the exercise thereof in all the parishes, and to abolish that of heresy, and whereas on the one side there were many obstacles to this great blessing from those considerations which are called reasons of State, and on the other side some persons as yet not well instructed in the truth made resistance against this so much-desired establishment, his Highness surmounted the first difficulty by the invincible constancy of his zeal for the Catholic religion, and the second by an extraordinary gentleness and prudence. For he had the chief and most obstinate called together ,and made a speech unto them with so lovingly persuasive an eloquence that almost all, vanquished by the sweet violence of his fatherly love towards them, cast the weapons of their obstinacy at his feet, and their souls into the hands of Holy Church.

And allow me, my dear readers I pray you, to say this word in passing. One may praise many rich actions of this great Prince, in which I see the proof of his valour and military knowledge, which with just cause is admired through all Europe. But for my part I cannot sufficiently extol the establishment  of  the  Catholic  religion  in  these  three  bailiwicks  which  I  have  just  mentioned, having  seen  in  it  so  many  marks  of  piety,  united  with  so  many  and  various  acts  of  prudence, constancy, magnanimity, justice and mildness, that I seemed to see in this one little trait, as in a miniature, all that is praised in princes who have in times past with most fervour striven to advance the glory of God and the Church. The stage was small, but the action great. And as that ancient craftsman was never so much esteemed for his great pieces as he was admired for making a ship of ivory fitted with all its gear, in so tiny a volume that the wings of a bee covered all, so I esteem more that which this great Prince did at that time in this small corner of his dominions, than many more brilliant actions which others extol to the heavens.

It’s a beautiful bit of prose, and a lovely little tribute to … well, if I’ve got my dates right, King Henry of Navarre.  Yes, that’s right: the dude who was reviled in England for becoming Catholic when he ascended (in order to ascend?) the throne of France, reportedly observing that Paris was “worth a Mass.”  (Talk about Machiavellian ragione di state!)  He also, of course, in his younger Huguenot days, narrowly escaped the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.  As Catholic king, he extended toleration to Protestants and (wait for it) was assassinated by a fanatical Catholic.  Apparently some people called him “Good King Henry.”  Who knew?  St. Francis, at any rate, seems to have thought his conversion sincere.  And no: it probably wasn’t royal boot-licking on St. Francis’s part, because Henry had been assassinated six years earlier, in 1610.  (The Treatise was published in 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death.)

In any case, St. Francis notes his previous tendency, “while I was not yet bishop, having more leisure and  less  fears  for  my  writings,” to dedicate his works “ to  princes  of  the  earth,” avowing a new intention:

but  now  being weighed down with my charge, and having a thousand difficulties in writing, I consecrate all to the princes of heaven, that they may obtain for me the light requisite, and that if such be the Divine will, these my writings may be fruitful and profitable to many.

There’s the Renaissance for you: patronage, independence, and the reformation of one’s life in a few short paragraphs.

The second thing I noticed was the way in which the first chapter rung changes on common themes in Renaissance culture: paradox, order, the macrocosm/microcosm, beauty as a telos … To make a comparison for modern readers: It would be like a priest today mounting the pulpit to deliver an opening salvo dealing with Minimalism and Karma. St. Francis is trendy, in a sixteenth-century sort of way.

Since it’s Sunday, and you may be in want of a good sermon, I’ll just leave that complete first chapter right here.

“That for the Beauty of Human Nature God Has Given the Government of
All the Faculties of the Soul to the Will.”
Union  in  distinction  makes  order;  order  produces  agreement;  and  proportion  and  agreement,  incomplete and finished things, make beauty. An army has beauty when it is composed of parts so ranged in order that their distinction is reduced to that proportion which they ought to have together for the making of one single army. For music to be beautiful, the voices must not only be true, clear, and distinct from one another, but also united together in such a way that there may arise a just consonance and harmony which is not unfitly termed a discordant harmony or rather harmonious discord.
Now as the angelic S. Thomas, following the great S. Denis, says excellently well, beauty and goodness though in some things they agree, yet still are not one and the same thing: for good is that which pleases the appetite and will, beauty that which pleases the understanding or knowledge; or, in other words, good is that which gives pleasure when we enjoy it, beauty that which gives pleasure when we know it. For which cause in proper speech we only attribute corporal beauty to the  objects  of  those  two  senses  which  are  the  most  intellectual  and  most  in  the  service  of  the understanding—namely,  sight  and  hearing,  so  that  we  do  not  say,  these  are  beautiful  odours  or beautiful tastes: but we rightly say, these are beautiful voices and beautiful colours.
The beautiful then being called beautiful, because the knowledge thereof gives pleasure, it is requisite that besides the union and the distinction, the integrity, the order, and the agreement of its parts, there should be also splendour and brightness that it may be knowable and visible. Voices to be beautiful must be clear and true; discourses intelligible; colours brilliant and shining. Obscurity, shade and darkness are ugly and disfigure all things, because in them nothing is knowable, neither order, distinction, union nor agreement; which caused S. Denis to say, that “God as the sovereign beauty is author of the beautiful harmony, beautiful lustre and good grace which is found in all things, making the distribution and decomposition of his one ray of beauty spread out, as light, to make all things beautiful,” willing that to compose beauty there should be agreement, clearness and good grace.
Certainly, Theotimus, beauty is without effect, unprofitable and dead, if light and splendour do not make it lively and effective, whence we term colours lively when they have light and lustre.
But as to animated and living things their beauty is not complete without good grace, which, besides  the  agreement  of  perfect  parts  which  makes  beauty,  adds  the  harmony  of  movements, gestures and actions, which is as it were the life and soul of the beauty of living things. Thus, in the sovereign beauty of our God, we acknowledge union, yea, unity of essence in the distinction of persons, with an infinite glory, together with an incomprehensible harmony of all perfections of actions and motions, sovereignly comprised, and as one would say excellently joined and adjusted, in the most unique and simple perfection of the pure divine act, which is God Himself, immutable and invariable, as elsewhere we shall show. God, therefore, having a will to make all things good and beautiful, reduced the multitude and distinction of the same to a perfect unity, and, as man would say, brought them all under a monarchy, making a subordination of one thing to another and of all things to himself the sovereign Monarch. He reduces all our members into one body under one head, of many persons he forms a family, of many families a town, of many towns a province, of many provinces a kingdom, putting the whole kingdom under the government of one sole king. So, Theotimus, over the innumerable multitude and variety of actions, motions, feelings, inclinations, habits, passions, faculties and powers which are in man, God has established a natural monarchy in the will, which rules and commands all that is found in this little world: and God seems to have said to the will as Pharao said to Joseph: Thou shalt be over my house, and at the commandment of thy mouth all the people shall obey. This dominion of the will is exercised indeed in very various ways.

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